For the last 15 years, the island of Catalina beckoned from afar, somehow never enticing enough to get up and go check it out. On a cruise to Spain and Portugal years ago, we had a stop over in Gibraltar – I will open a gigantic parentheses here and gift you with some free advice: if you have never been on a cruise and you are mulling over the idea, spare yourself the agony and the expense. No matter how luxurious the ship, there is absolutely nothing fun in being cooped up with people you don’t know for any length of time, being force-fed the same bland, hotel type of food every single night and having to constantly refuse pricey and odious excursions. It might not help that I suffer from seasickness.
My guide-book was scant on details on Gibraltar, a place best left to one’s imagination. The reality is a dreary rock with cheap fish and chip shops and the worst souvenir stores in the Western world, with the only viable alternative a ride up the mountain where you will find monkeys willing to jump on your head. The only saving grace was a branch of Marks and Spencer where I purchased underwear and food to take back to my cabin. I always imagined Catalina to be a sort of Gibraltar outpost here in the Pacific. The main island of the Channel Isles, it is virtually a stone’s throw from LA (or 2 hours by ferry from Marina del Rey). On this unusually cold and dreary Summer day, my friends and I optimistically set out early in the morning under a thick mist. I had forgotten how pretty Marina del Rey is waterside, with its colorful clapboard buildings vaguely reminiscent of Holland and Denmark. On docking at Avalon, the mists hadn’t parted yet but no Arthur was there to greet us.
Catalina’s harbor is a jumble of sailing boats and the occasional cruise ship (see above) and its waterfront is a pleasant-looking mix of the dreadful souvenir stores I expected, sports bars and some fancy and modern restaurants. Houses are built up the slopes, borrowing from Caribbean colors and Nantucket architecture. The vegetation is Californian but of a deeper shade of green which gives the place a vaguely tropical feel.
The island’s history is much older than I expected with a tribe of American Indians settling there and living in peace for thousands of year until the Portuguese and the Spanish made their appearance and claimed the island their own. The diseases spread by the Europeans decimated the local population and it wasn’t until the 1800’s, when LA had become a populous city, that some people decided to settle on the island and, to this day, less than 4,000 souls call Catalina their home.
The vehicle of choice seems to be the electrical golf cart as permits to own a car are hard to come by. All the usual suspects in the form of water sports are available as well as this new “zipping” device that will propel you from the top of a mountain down a canyon, while “zipped” to some sort of cable – it promises killer views, if you stay alive to actually enjoy them. We passed. What we didn’t pass on was the hiking. Free permits can be obtained from the Conservancy Office where friendly rangers will be more than happy to help you with choice of trail and suggestions. We opted for the Gulch trail that starts underneath the Botanical Gardens – it steeply climbs to the top of the island where you will be able to see both sides of it and loops down through the Botanical Gardens (hence saving the $5 of admission). We didn’t meet a single soul on the trail. Once leaving the main drag, the rest of Avalon is pretty deserted, further proof that the average tourist belongs in a herd.
The ferry fare is not cheap ($83 return from Marina del Rey, cheaper for boats leaving from San Pedro) but the payback is the feeling of being a million miles away from the city. A large school of dolphins travelled alongside our boat on the way back, reminding us that this crazy metropolis of ours was once a natural haven. Funnily enough, there are a million reminders under our noses, if we ever care to look.